The NIFL's Kurt Warner Story, Saint Michael

The Life

reprinted from espnmag. Copyright ESPN All Rights Reserved

by David Fleming ESPN The Magazine

      The beer distributor that Michael Lewis used to work for is only two doors
      down from his new employer.
      So as they pass the Saints practice facility in Metairie, La., the guys
      motoring by in the beer trucks honk their horns and rev their engines in
      homage to their buddy, the one dreamer in a million who said he was gonna
      make it to the NFL and did.
      After all, it was only a year ago that Michael Lewis was one of them,
      schlepping cases and kegs of Bud, driving a nasty burgundy 1989 Buick
      Regal, trying to make ends meet making $12.50 an hour the hard way.
      I like beer. And I like the people who deliver it to me even more, which
      only makes Lewis' story that much better if you ask me. Besides, Lewis,
      who was leading the NFL in kick return average through the first month of
      the season (at 32.3 yards per pop) is everything a first-year star in the
      NFL is not supposed to be: he's 29 years old, stands 5'8", 165 pounds and
      when you look for the college next to his name on the Saints roster it
      says ... None.
      "It's an unbelievable story," says coach Jim Haslett. Unbelievable? Lewis'
      10-year vision quest makes Rams QB and former Arena Leaguer Kurt Warner
      look like a spoiled brat. Are the Terry Glenns of the NFL getting you down
      already? Well, Michael Lewis is a guy we should all be tipping our beer
      steins to. (Or beer hats ... or funnels, your call really.)
      Instead of a pampered life on a college campus, Lewis' path to the NFL
      started in a section of New Orleans often referred to as "The Dump."
      Although blessed with blazing 4.2 speed, he played only one season of high
      school football before becoming a father at the age of 19.
      While parenting his daughter Keneisha, 10, and maintaining jobs at a
      hospital, a janitorial service and then the beer wagon, Lewis wound his
      way through the darkest recesses of professional football like some kind
      of Dante character in shoulder pads, starting with the semi-pro Kenner
      City (La.) Chiefs.
      "The road I took was long and different and difficult," says Lewis. "I
      just never gave up on myself. I knew in my heart I could play and I didn't
      want to be one of those guys sitting around my whole life saying 'What if?
      What if?' "
      Now, I have spent a good deal of time following a semi-pro football team
      in North Carolina, for a book I hope to one day title You Can't Smoke
      Here, This is Football Practice and, let me say this: there is nothing
      even close to semi-pro about semi-pro.
      To give you some idea of what Lewis went through, the semi-pro team I
      covered had to shoo homeless folks off their practice field. Once, after
      some of the players forgot to return their practice jerseys, their coach
      reminded them about the gun he kept in his truck. This team once played a
      game next to a sewage treatment pond. And in the playoffs in Pennsylvania
      they actually stranded their No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks back at the
      hotel.
      Lewis left that world behind, and for 200 bucks a game he played for the
      Bayou Beast of the Indoor Professional Football League. He then hooked up
      (for the princely sum of $900 a game) with the New Jersey Red Dogs of the
      Arena Football League where he doubled as a ... linebacker. "It helps if
      you are crazy if you want to play arena ball," Lewis says with a shrug.
      Before the 2000 season he was signed to the Philadelphia Eagles practice
      squad. When he was cut, the Saints genius GM Randy Mueller, who is
      constantly churning the bottom of his roster, signed Lewis and allocated
      him to the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe. (BTW, for those acronym junkies
      keeping score at home that's the IPFL to the AFL to NFLE to the NFCW of
      the NFL.)
      In camp Lewis stunned the Saints with his defense-stretching speed, his
      kamikaze 'tude on special teams and his work ethic. "I knew if I could get
      my foot in the door," he says, "they'd never be able to get it out."
      Mueller also knew that Lewis would fit in with the rest of the junkyard
      dogs that make up the Saints roster. (Seriously, how do you not root for
      this team of tatted-out eye-gougers and misfits -- the ying to the Rams'
      pretty-boy yang?)
      Quarterback Aaron Brooks' rookie card once traded for a quarter; Pro Bowl
      wideout Joe Horn used to work at a sofa factory; Pro Bowl defensive tackle
      La'Roi Glover was once a World League project; and, heck, as an NFL
      linebacker Haslett once used Terry Bradshaw's melon as a welcome mat.
      And then there's Lewis.
      During Sunday's game against the Panthers, Lewis returned six kickoffs for
      126 yards, but dropped one ball and made some poor decisions. Afterward,
      Haslett talked about benching him. But as we walked out to the team bus
      together, Lewis, the only NFL player I've seen with enough panache to
      match his tie with the handkerchief in his suit pocket, practically
      laughed at my suggestion that he had a tough day. Sometimes, I suppose, we
      all need a fresh dose of perspective.
      "I've traveled this far, I'm not about to give up," he said. "I'm trying
      to make a better life for my daughter."
      Back in New Orleans Lewis did what he has always done when things get
      tough: he went back to work. Haslett says they have to push him out of the
      building at night, as if Lewis is some kind of stowaway afraid if he
      leaves for a second his dream will go poof and his key won't work in the
      morning.
      I can picture him now, tired and sweaty and alone on the practice field
      repeatedly taking punts to the house in the New Orleans twilight, spurred
      on by the sound of his old beer truck, which he knows is only two doors
      down.
      David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at
      [email protected]

 

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